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Contributions of black attorneys highlight RBBA MLK program

They may not have known it before Thursday, but more than 200 students at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School No. 9 in the city of Rochester now know they have several role models nationally and right in their own community.

From left, Aaron Frazier, Duwaine Bascoe, Maria Reed and the Hon. Caroline Morrison spoke at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School No. 9 in Rochester on Thursday. Members of the Rochester Black Bar Association presented a program on the history and contributions of African-American attorneys, both locally and nationally. Credit: Vasiliy Baziuk

From left, Aaron Frazier, Duwaine Bascoe, Maria Reed and the Hon. Caroline Morrison spoke at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School No. 9 in Rochester on Thursday. Members of the Rochester Black Bar Association presented a program on the history and contributions of African-American attorneys, both locally and nationally. Credit: Vasiliy Baziuk

Of course, they have all heard of the great man their school is named after, but few raised their hands indicating they had heard of many other prominent men and women, some still around and some from years gone by.

Mayor Lovely Warren was also well-known among the students, but what they may not have known about the mayor of their city is that she is also an attorney.

Warren was one of many attorneys mentioned in a program on the “History of African-American Attorneys in Rochester and Beyond,” presented by four attorneys from the Rochester Black Bar Association, making their own histories.

The program, part of the association’s celebration of Black History Month, featured President Aaron Frazier, an associate at Harris Beach PLLC; Rochester City Court Judge Caroline Morrison; Duwaine Bascoe, associate at Woods Oviatt Gilman LLP; and Maria Reed, lead attorney for Fulton, Friedman & Gullace LLP and secretary of the association.

The first black attorney to practice in New York state, the students — and likely their teachers — learned, was George B. Vashon, who was admitted to practice in 1848. He, like the better-known Rochesterian Frederick Douglass, was an abolitionist, which the students knew were people who fought against slavery.

Anna Jones Robinson and Enid Foderingham became the first two black women attorneys in New York state in 1923 after graduating from New York University Law School.

Charles Perry Lee, admitted to practice law in 1889, was a law librarian in the Powers Building who also worked on the committee to erect the Frederick Douglass statute in the city.

One of the students had heard of Lloyd Hurst, a 1949 graduate of Brooklyn Law School who, in 1955, opened the first black law firm in Rochester with Reuben Davis, the first African-American to be a judge on the Rochester City Court and the Supreme Court in the Seventh Judicial District.

No one raised their hand, however, saying they had heard of the Hon. Roy W. King, a 1964 graduate of Syracuse University College of Law and former City Court judge, but he is no stranger to the panel.

“I personally know Judge King,” said Judge Morrison. “He has served as a mentor to me and other young attorneys. He’s still active in the community.”

In fact, the students were told, they might be interested in a book Judge King is writing about African-American attorneys.

Frazier said Judge Morrison has been a mentor to him and asked the students if they knew about mentors. A few pointed to Assistant Principal Burnice Green, calling him their mentor.

“Your teachers are excellent mentors to have,” Frazier said. “Judge King is a great man and one of my mentors too. Because of his encouragement and support, I was able to go to Harvard University. Honor and respect your mentors. Stay in touch with them. They can help you achieve your goals.”

Judge Morrison and Reed were delighted to see many girls among the students who raised their hands indicating they would like to be a lawyer.

Before 1975, Reed said, “which was not that long ago,” there were no black women practicing law in Rochester. That year, Rosetta McDowell, Carrie Walthour and Marion Florence Brooks were all admitted to practice, eventually becoming partners in area law firms.

The largest African-American-owned law firm is Brown & Hutchinson, founded in 1994 by T. Andrew Brown and Michelle Hutchinson.

Other black attorneys the students may actually come into contact with one day include their school board president, Van White; Rochester City Court Judges Teresa D. Johnson, Maija C. Dixon, Stephen T. Miller and Leticia D. Astacio; Connie Walker, law clerk to U.S. District Court Judge Frank P. Geraci Jr.; Supreme Court Justice Rose H. Sconiers, Appellate Division, Fourth Department; and Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, state Court of Appeals.

Then of course, on the federal level, there are President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, both attorneys; Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; and Attorney General Eric Holder.

“There are a lot more than this,” Frazier said. “I just wanted to give you a sampling of some of them.”

The students also learned the basics about becoming with an attorney, starting with where they are now and graduating from high school or getting a GED diploma.

Frazier said one of the cool things about becoming a lawyer is being able to pursue any college major they want because they will get their legal education in law school. He studied philosophy, keeping his mind occupied for four years with questions like “Can we ever truly know if we’re not in the matrix?” he said.

Bascoe took psychology as part of a pre-medical track, but said he decided in his senior year he hated it and decided to go to law school at SUNY Buffalo Law.

“The path that you take should be your own path,” he advised. “Take classes that interest you, that you will do well in.”

Reed said she started out with a political science major, which blended right into law school while Judge Morrison took up computers, decided she was not very good at it and, on a professor’s advice, shifted to criminal justice.

One of the not so fun things, Frazier said, is taking the bar exam, but quickly added they would only have to take it once unless they wanted to practice in another part of the country where they may have to take that state’s test.

“Does anybody know why it’s called a bar exam?” Frazier asked, telling the students to think about the courtrooms they have seen on television. He said the fence-like barrier between the audience and the attorneys in the court gallery is called the bar and once admitted as an attorney, they can cross the bar and address the court.

“How much money do you make?” asked one student.

Frazier said the average attorney in Rochester can make between $80,000 and $250,000; those in public interest positions, between $30,000 and $125,000.

“We are paid pretty well, but we do have to work hard for it,” Frazier said.